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Sufi music in the throes of a budding revolution

Ananya Dutta
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Divinity amid reality of earth:Whirling dervishes of Egypt performing on the inaugural day of the Sufi and Traditional Music Festival in Kolkata on Friday.- Photo: Sushanta Patronobish
Divinity amid reality of earth:Whirling dervishes of Egypt performing on the inaugural day of the Sufi and Traditional Music Festival in Kolkata on Friday.- Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The whirling dervish wears pristine white while beside him dancers dressed in colourful costumes swirl bright props in tune with the beats of the drummers behind them. “The white symbolises the divinity the dervish aspires for, the colours are a part of the reality of this earth,” explains Amer Eltony who founded the Mawlawiyah group in 1994 to present Egypt’s Sufi music tradition to the world.

The music and the act of whirling is a part of “our meditation” but the group is not divorced from reality. When the country was in the throes of revolution, the Mawlawiyah cancelled their concerts to go to Tahrir Square and participate in the protests.

“The revolution has not stopped; it has just started. In Egypt we say, ‘if you are sick, you throw out all the contents of your stomach’. Egypt is sick, it must pour out all the contents of its stomach,” Mr. Eltony, who is in the city as a part of the ongoing international festival of Sufi and traditional music, told The Hindu on Friday.

 Stating that the Muslim Brotherhood usurped the popular protests in his country during the now famous Arab Spring, Mr. Eltony firmly asserts that President Mohamed Morsi should follow his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. He has faith in the youth, assuring the world that the “revolution is coming”.

A group of eight Sufi musicians from Tunisia agreed that “for us, the revolution is now”: “The revolution did not end a month or a year after the ouster (of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011). What we have to do now is to build the institutions – political, economic, social and cultural – so that we never return to the days before the revolution,” said Abdelhamid Jarmouni, producer of the ensemble Mechket.

Mechket, which literally translates to source of light, has taken up songs from the traditional Tunisian Sufi style but merged them with other influences from the region. Traditional Sufi music in Tunisia was performed only with percussion, but Mechket has introduced violins, bass guitars and the piano to the mix. For now there is only “the political boxing match” played out between contrasting political ideologies in Tunisia, felt Farouk Slaoui, a singer of Mechket. But the most positive development is “the freedom of expression” that has at least been insured over the last two years.

 Musicians of both countries are wary of the spectre of the U.S. government and the interests of the multinational corporations and the impact it will have on their future.

“Everyone is looking at Tunisia from the haze of the Arab Spring. But what lies under the Arab Spring? There are mining interests, energy needs, oil and natural gas in the region….There are many who believe that the American administration pushed the revolution,” says Mr. Jarmouni. Commenting on the huge financial aid that the U.S. provides to Egypt both before the revolution and after, Mr. Eltony adds: “the American government will play with whoever has the ball.”


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